Socioeconomic Status and Drug Abuse: Is There a Correlation?

drug use rich vs poor

Many people assume that poverty and drug abuse go hand-in-hand. People believe that those who live in lower-income neighborhoods (where there is a lack of education) have a higher risk of becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol—that all drug addicts are poor, homeless, uneducated and unemployed. This has been a common belief for decades, though new studies are revealing that things have changed since 1987, when crack and heroin dominated inner-cities across the United States. Today, the 21 million faces of substance addiction are not all disadvantaged or poverty-stricken. Rather, it is affluent young adults and adolescents of higher socioeconomic status that are most at risk.

While it's true that poorer demographics are prone to drug exposure and abuse, a new study from Arizona State University has found that wealthy teens are at higher-risk for substance use and mental health issues than middle and lower-class children. Released in late May 2017, the new research suggests that, by age 26, upper-middle-class young adults’ chances of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol are two to three times higher than the national norms for this age group.

Specifically, affluent adolescents have higher rates of drinking to the point of intoxication and greater use of pot than kids in the general U.S. population. Wealthy children also had rates that were at least double the national average for taking stimulant drugs, such as Adderall, Ritalin, and cocaine.

It’s an interesting dynamic to think about: the teens and young adults who have what most could ever want — wealthy parents, nice, comfortable homes, an elite education, opportunities at college, connections with other affluent families – are the ones most at-risk for drug abuse. Oftentimes, these children are also popular, proficient academically, and accomplished in extracurricular activities such as sports or music. How, then, can it be that these “privileged” youth are more prone to drug addiction?

Suniya Luthar, author of "Adolescents from upper middle class communities: Substance misuse and addiction across early adulthood," says the answer lies in the lives of these upper-class adolescents:

Academic Pressures

When the study began, all the surveyed teens were attending some of the best schools in their region: competitive, suburban high schools with high-standardized test scores, extensive extracurricular offerings, and high rates of graduates going on to enroll in very selective universities. But Luthar suggests that these well-established high schools may actually be a contributor to early drug abuse. Generally, adolescents at these types of schools experience great pressure to do well, achieve, and even exceed excellence. Students are expected to be the best. Oftentimes, they are expected to go off to the best colleges and earn full-rides based on their academic or athletic performance. Many students also want this for themselves, and will do whatever it takes to get there.

The problem is, these pressures can become overwhelming, and many teens do not know how to cope with the overabundance of stress. Many will turn to prescription drugs like Adderall in efforts to study harder. Athletes may turn to steroid drugs in efforts to perform better. Others may turn to recreational, illicit drug use as a way to relieve their stresses and “escape.” Thus, the “work hard, play hard” mentality surfaces. Not to mention, many of these teens are struggling silently with mental disorders like anxiety and depression, which can also lead to drug abuse.

Extra Income

Over 80 percent of high school seniors report that they can get marijuana and alcohol very easily. This is a national statistic among all 12th graders. Now imagine the percentage of seniors in highly-affluent schools, where there is more income at one’s disposal. How easy it must be for them to buy drugs and alcohol with the right amount of cash.

With wealth comes great ease in obtaining drugs. According to Luthar, "Many kids in these [affluent] communities have plenty of disposable income with which they can get high-quality fake ID's, as well as alcohol and both prescription and recreational drugs."

Popularity & Peer Approval

In elite high schools, such as the ones surveyed by Luthar, there is a certain peer culture in which drugs and alcohol are expected and encouraged among teens. The cool parties involve alcohol. The cool, rebellious kids do drugs. The way to become cool is to go to parties and participate in these things, too. That’s what many teens who seek peer approval will do.

Parental Oversight

When children are doing well in school, in sports, and continuing to keep up with their daily priorities, it is easy for parents to overlook substance use. This is an especially normal occurrence among affluent families: when children are excelling academically, parents may not see as much harm in alcohol or marijuana use as other parents might. Luthar suggests that parents can be more easily lulled into a false sense of security, believing that there will be no severe repercussions for their teen’s drug use: their child will still continue to do well; it is a just another phase that will pass.

In a previous study, Luthar also suggested that there is less after-school supervision of children in affluent homes, as parents tend to be more busied with working full-time jobs. Combined with greater exposure to substance-using peers, trying drugs is often more easily enabled in wealthier homes where parents are not always watching.

This 2017 study is not the first time researchers have found a correlation between socioeconomic status and drug use. Several studies have shown that young adults in well-educated, well-off families tend to use prescription drugs, alcohol, and marijuana more frequently than their peers. The question remains, what can be done about it? How can we reduce drug use in affluent communities and among our youth?

One of the most important things parents can do now is get educated: Get educated and have honest, open, and loving conversations with your children about the negative effects of drugs. When young people use drugs repeatedly or for long periods of time, they are at great risk for addiction. In fact, up until age 25 (when their brains fully develop), young people are most at risk for developing a chronic drug addiction down the road. Not to mention, they are at risk of other dangerous consequences of substance abuse, like drunk driving accidents, violence and sexual assault, and legal troubles that can put their lives and their reputations at risk. Parents need to constantly be communicating about the risks of drug use, to help kids stay on the right path.

In her paper, Luthar also suggests that parents use an “only takes once" approach to outline the risks involved. "For high-achieving and ambitious youngsters,” she explains, “it could actually be persuasive to share scientific data showing that in their own communities the statistical odds of developing serious problems of addiction are two to three times higher than norms. And that it truly just takes one event of being arrested with cocaine, or hurting someone in a drunken car accident, to derail the high profile positions of leadership and influence toward which they are working so hard for the future.”

Parents should also minimize the pressures placed on kids to attend the best Ivy league schools, and allow children to make choices when it comes to their educational paths, Luthar suggests. Show them role models who have attended other colleges and still had great, successful futures in store. This can help alleviate any extra stresses that may turn a teen towards drugs.

Most of all, if you believe that your teenager is abusing drugs or alcohol, facing a substance addiction or a mental health disorder, do not wait to seek outside help. There are compassionate, experienced addiction professionals out there who can help get your child back on the right path. And remember, you can always contact Turnbridge young adult drug treatment center. Call 877-581-1793 for help.